Old Skodas Get the Last Laugh
Go back a few years and Skoda was the butt of a great deal of British humour.
Along with the Reliant Robin three-wheeler and Russian Lada Riva, Skoda’s little, rear-engined Estelle saloon was on the receiving end of ‘aren’t these cheap, weird cars awful?’ jokes. Jasper Carrot could get whole routines out of Skodas and Robins.
Before the Last War Skoda made some very good cars, as Czechoslovakia had a proud tradition of design and engineering, but during the grey, Russian-controlled Communist era creative traits were squashed, and its cars became increasingly old-fashioned, despite Skoda’s engineers doing their best to subvert this. When it first appeared the rear-engined Estelle had dodgy handling, thanks to the weight of its rear engine and something called ‘swing axle’ rear suspension, which gave the car wayward cornering.
Then in the mid-1980s, the suspension was changed and the cars transformed. They were still painted funny colours, still cheaply finished, but became interesting and often fun to drive. They were also distinctive, characterful and cheap. Rear engines gave them good traction, and the amusingly named Rapid couple was a formidable rally car. Britain likes an underdog, and although the Skoda jokes continued, the cars earned a grudging respect and a certain amount of fondness, because in a market dominated by front-wheel-drive hatchbacks they were like nothing else.
A friend of mine has a much-loved Rapid coupe. He’s owned it for years, having paid almost nothing for it. The dashboard has knobs like an old gas oven, the gear change is floppy, and it’s a slow old thing, but it’s also utterly charming, partly because it feels much older than it is. I drove it from Kent to Cambridge and back, found the experience completely relaxing, and decided that I wanted one too.
Not long ago you could pick up an Estelle saloon for £50, a Rapid for £300 or less. Not anymore. It seems the few survivors are starting to be worth real money, anything from £1,000 to £3,000 plus. Hardly a king’s ransom, but proof that fans of a car everyone else thought was a joke, have had the last laugh.
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